By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Kim Angus had a determined look on her face as she sat before a computer at a Guilderland High School lab, composing a missive to the governor.
She was joined by a handful of others who had attended the school district’s latest community conversation — this one aimed at advocacy.
Angus belongs to the Parent-Teacher Association at Lynnwood Elementary School where she was encouraged to come to the Jan. 15 session.
She attended the district’s last community conversation as well. “It made me want to show my support and try to help out,” she said.
Her 10-year-old son is a third-grader at Lynnwood and, as a kindergartner, he had “really enjoyed” learning Spanish as part of the Foreign Language Early Start program. “Then, slowly, it was taken away,” she said.
Angus, who teaches English as a second language in Cohoes, said she moved to Guilderland for its schools.
The FLES program was cut as Guilderland has, for several years, faced multi-million-dollar budget gaps, reducing some programs, enlarging class sizes across the district, and cutting 125 jobs.
In the opening session last Tuesday, the crowd of about 50 — many of them staff or board members — were told about the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a law introduced for the 2010-11 school year under David Paterson’s administration as a means of closing the state’s $10 billion budget deficit.
Under the GEA, school districts across the state have money deducted from their aid each year. This school year, Guilderland lost $4.1 million.
Nearly a quarter of Guilderland’s revenues come from state aid. This year’s budget is $89 million.
In the three years since the GEA was passed, Guilderland has lost close to $11 million in aid.
Those attending last Tuesday’s session were encouraged to write letters — with the paper and postage paid for by the superintendent — or online missives to legislators or the governor.
Superintendent Marie Wiles said that using a personal approach was the most effective. Hence, Angus was composing her message to the governor about her son’s loss of Spanish lessons at Lynnwood Elementary School.
“My son deserves the best education,” she said. “Things he likes might all be gone if we don’t do something.”
“The path we are on is unsustainable and cannot continue if we are to provide a meaningful education for our students,” Assistant Superintendent Neil Sanders had told the crowd an hour earlier as he presented a chart showing the district’s rapid decline in its fund balance and reserves since it is saddled with paying for unfunded mandates and faces a tax-levy cap while aid stagnates.
“Without adequate resources, the Guilderland education as we know it will cease to be,” said Wiles.
She also said that local control over “our Guilderland education is clearly being eroded…It will be nothing more than a state education. I don’t think this community can stand for it.”
Wiles went over changes the district has made, such as restructuring use of time, becoming more efficient, accepting concessions from workers, changing health benefits, and reviewing programs.
“Here’s the part that hurts,” she said, noting 125 positions have been cut and, besides cutting FLES, there have been cuts in freshman athletics and clubs.
For the 2011-12 school year, Guilderland faced a $3.9 million revenue gap; for this school year, the district faced a $2.6 million gap.
“Both years, we did that,” said Wiles of closing the gap. With no more obvious places to cut, she went on, “The question becomes, how do we close this one?”
For next year, Guilderland faces a $2.1 million revenue gap.
“What will we have to eliminate next?” Wiles asked. “I’m worried we won’t have a lot of choices….The following year, the decisions will be harder and the options will be worse…That’s why we need to advocate for ourselves.”
She concluded, “Without our entire school community rising up and getting angry, I’m worried….our Class of 2013 will get the best education we’ll offer for the foreseeable future.”
One legislator the advocates won’t have to write is the new State Assembly member representing Guilderland in the 109th District. Patricia Fahy attended the Jan. 15 session at Guilderland.
She ran on a platform of more jobs and more funding for education. “I’m an advocate,” Fahy told the crowd, noting that, as a past member of the Albany School Board, “These issues are very near and dear to my heart.”
She also said, “I’m stunned at the morale among teachers…and administrators. Just what a discouraging time this is.”
Fahy concluded, though, “I can’t promise to deliver anything. All I can promise is to work my hardest.”
Guilderland’s state senator, Cecilia Tkaczyk — who just this week won her seat by 18 votes after a prolonged court battle — is also an advocate for more school funding, and serves on the Duanesburg School Board.
The problem, though, is the state has a huge deficit and there’s no clear path as to how more funds for schools can be obtained. When The Enterprise asked Fahy after last Tuesday’s meeting how schools could get more funds, she suggested “creative methods” and “mandate relief.”
Pressed for details on these “creative methods” since some mandates are necessary and the money for those requirements would have to come from somewhere, too, Fahy mentioned that Michigan and California use sales tax to fund education, although she added, “I’m well aware how regressive that can be,” since the poor pay a disproportionate share of sales taxes.
She also said she had heard talk of a sugar tax and ammunition tax as well as revenues coming from casino gambling.
Fahy has also been an advocate of the property tax circuit breaker system, in which the state government would provide refunds to those who pay a high share of their income to property taxes. And, she advocates looking at the tax-exempt properties in the county to see if the exemptions are warranted.
During her campaign, Tkaczyk said that one of her priorities is to make “sure we’re getting our fair share in state school aid.”
Tkaczyk has said that there are 23 schools serving over 40,000 children in the 46th District and, since the 2008-09 school year, when the state reduced aid to schools, the local schools have collectively lost over $45 million.
Tkaczyk told The Enterprise that she supports the property tax cap. “It was put together with the promise of mandate relief that didn’t happen,” she said.
School aid, she went on, has been cut disproportionately in rural and small-city school districts. “We’ve shifted the burden to local property owners,” she said. “We need mandate relief and our fair share in school aid.”
Asked where the state money would come from for more school aid, Tkaczyk said, “We need to redistribute aid and change the formula.”
She said, for example, that Duanesburg could lose its kindergarten program, all sports, and all college-level Advanced Placement courses “to fit this new revenue stream.”
She went on, “We don’t have the ability to raise that money locally…Our deficit is $1.3 million.” To fill that out with property tax revenues would raise taxes 15 percent, she said.
“The math doesn’t work,” said Tkaczyk.
She also said that New York State is 44th in the nation in the disparity between wealthy and low-wealth districts.
“We have to educate all of our children,” she concluded.
During her campaign, Fahy, like Tkaczyk, said the formula for state aid to schools needs to change. “We need to shift the education formula and stop politicizing it,” she told The Enterprise during her campaign. “We need to stop rewarding wealthier schools and reward schools based on need.”
Fahy concluded after the Jan. 15 meeting at Guilderland, “The gratifying piece is this is no longer a few urban districts feeling the squeeze. The problem is urban, rural, and suburban.”
If a wealthy district like Guilderland has kindergarten teachers complaining about class sizes, she said, “You know education quality is suffering everywhere….Previously, we pigeon-holed this issue.”